Chris Wallace, general manager of the Memphis Grizzlies, was speaking with a New York basketball fan a couple weeks ago when the subject of Marc Gasol's free agency came up. Wallace had a simple message for the fan, one that could have come out of any number of front offices around the NBA.
"Tell the Knicks, 'No chance,'" Wallace said.
It was an accurate read on the situation. Phil Jackson has no chance of persuading Gasol to help win him the two titles in New York that the big man's older brother, Pau, helped Jackson win in Los Angeles. Marc has a great thing going in Memphis, and hey, why would anyone give that up for a pay cut to join the worst team in Knicks history?
Jackson has an awfully tough sell to start making in the first seconds of Wednesday morning, when the midnight madness that opens free agency allows executives of teams good and bad to channel their inner John Calipari and recruit like mad. Chances are, long after admitting the Knicks' dreadful season could frighten away desirable talent, Jackson will have to spend his $27 million in available salary-cap space on a couple second-tier free agents to complement his draft-night additions of Kristaps Porzingis and Jerian Grant.
His likely starting five for the 2015-16 season could feature Jose Calderon/Grant at the point, Arron Afflalo, Wesley Matthews or Danny Green at the 2, Carmelo Anthony at the 3, Porzingis at the 4 (might as well throw him out there and start the development process ASAP) and Greg Monroe at the 5, with an aging, somewhat declining David West a possibility to alter the frontcourt look. Those Knicks would win 34 games and give Jackson a chance to spin the progress this way:
We doubled our victory total from the season before, and away we go.
But why should Knicks fans settle for the idea that Jackson can't possibly be asked to land LaMarcus Aldridge or even DeAndre Jordan? Why should they accept the assumption that their team president has no chance to steal Dwyane Wade or even Goran Dragic from a Miami Heat team that sure isn't what it used to be? Why should they embrace the concession that Monroe, a nice player on a lousy Detroit Pistons outfit, is as good as it's going to get in the coming weeks?
Propped up by the 11 rings he won as coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers and by the two he earned off Red Holzman's bench, Jackson was signed by Knicks owner James Dolan to a $60 million deal to stabilize the franchise in the short term and win its first championship since 1973 in the long term. It is becoming increasingly clear there won't be any long term with Jackson, who turns 70 in September and is already talking about his lieutenant, Steve Mills, taking over.
But as long as he lords over the Knicks, Jackson should be held to a higher standard than the one now ushering him comfortably into free agency. He wasn't paid $12 million a pop to do the one thing that made him a legend -- coach -- if only because he's physically unable to manage the grind. He was paid the big bucks to establish a functional culture inside a dysfunctional organization and, more importantly, to acquire the talent necessary to compete for a title.
Phil Jackson was the free agent who was going to land the free agents. He was going to out-Riley Pat Riley.
Remember when Riley reportedly walked into his 2010 pitch meeting with LeBron James carrying a bag of the seven rings he won as a Lakers player, assistant and head coach, dropped the rings in front of the ultimate blue-chip recruit and asked him to try one on? Jackson could scatter an extra half-dozen rings across any table in any pitch meeting.
Then again, should he even bother for the likes of Monroe?
The truth is, free agency is where Jackson will earn his wage -- or not earn it -- and he indicated as much in March.
"We know what the first-round pick is going to mean for us," he said, "but we also know we're going to build our team with free agents .... So that's where our priority stands."
Jackson also referred to the league's new TV deals and the major impact they will have on the salary cap in 2016 and beyond.
"It's not about who is going to have the most money anymore," he said. "That playing field has pretty much evened out, especially with the amount of money that's coming into the league. It's going to be who's attractive enough to get the people they want to play their style of play."
Jackson is the one who has to be attractive enough to compel worthwhile players to run his triangle offense. If he can't do that, and if health issues prevent him from returning to the bench, what exactly was the point of hiring him?
Shouldn't Jackson be expected to impose his will on someone, anyone, and pull off a bigger summer surprise than Alex Rodriguez's bat? Riley did it when he built his Big Three by stealing James from Cleveland, and Dan Gilbert, of all people, did it by stealing James back. Against the odds, without any of Jackson's star power or pedigree, Daryl Morey persuaded Dwight Howard to leave L.A.
Nobody is asking Jackson to do the impossible and airlift James out of Cleveland one year into his unfulfilled mission of winning the city's first sports title since 1964 and redeeming himself for the irredeemable Decision. But with Kevin Love boxed in by no such hometown passion plays, and with his body language suggesting he's open for business, would it be too much to ask Jackson to reel Love in next summer, if not this one?
"There's no question in my mind that Phil is doing his homework and that he's much more engaged than he's getting credit for," one prominent agent said. "He's got integrity, he's not mailing it in, and even if he's not running off to a lot of college games, I think he knows everything you need to know about every NBA player. But if he ends up just giving Greg Monroe a max contract, no, I don't think Knicks fans should be too excited about that."
Like most people who have seen Porzingis play more than once, that agent views the 7-foot-2 teenager as an inspiring pick for Jackson at No. 4 and as a prospect with much bigger upside than that of, say, Justise Winslow, who dropped into Riley's lap at No. 10.
That isn't going to mean much over the next two seasons. Jackson is already on record acknowledging free agency is the thing -- not the draft -- and this is where he can give Derek Fisher and Anthony a fighting chance.
Jackson handed Anthony $124 million and advertised him as an in-his-prime star who could serve as a valuable recruiting tool, so the Knicks president can't now blame Melo for scaring off those who don't want to deal with his ball-stopping ways. In fact, Jackson doesn't have a go-to excuse, in the event he can't talk any top-tier free agent into taking his cash.
He couldn't sell Pau Gasol on his vision last year, and he won't have a shot at selling Marc Gasol on his vision this year. But long before Jackson makes a potential zillion-to-one play for Kevin Durant next year, his job is to somehow find a way to take a LaMarcus Aldridge or DeAndre Jordan or Dwyane Wade or Kevin Love away from franchises in stronger positions to sign them.
In other words, Phil Jackson's job isn't to turn into a $60 million pumpkin at midnight.